Sophia Loulakis attended Downey High School, where she was excited to join the school’s Jazz Choir during her freshman year. Sophia has epilepsy, a seizure disorder, but she never let it stop her from enjoying music and activities that she loved. Her seizures could come at any time, so her teachers needed to be trained on how to respond and keep her safe. Sophia's mother, Mireya, repeatedly provided the school with a Seizure Care Plan created by Sophia’s doctor. The plan specified instructions on how to respond in the event of a seizure, including calling 9-1-1 when an attack lasts for more than five minutes. The school was required by law to implement the plan and train its teachers to protect Sophia from harm, but they failed to do so.
Sophia experienced more than twelve seizures during her first year at Downey High School; some of which resulted in injuries and trips to the emergency room. Despite being provided with the doctor-prescribed Care Plan, the school and district did not inform its staff and faculty members how to properly respond. Staff did not know what to do and would often leave Sophia in the care of her friends during a seizure. In fact, Sophia’s brother Georgie was designated as her “teacher’s aide” for the purposes of responding to her seizure-related needs. After a seizure, Sophia’s brain was often “re-setting,” leaving her tired, confused, and unable to concentrate. Nonetheless, Sophia’s teachers refused to allow her to make up tests and assignments.
In addition to the school's neglectful omission of protective procedures, Sophia was also kicked out of the school’s competitive Jazz Choir. This was personally devastating to her, given her love of music and that her social life revolved around choir friends and activities. The Jazz Choir’s policies had previously guaranteed that all students who were accepted could be members throughout all four years of high school. However, the policy was changed after Sophia’s freshman year so that the school could effectively discriminate against her. Her stress and fatigue compounded with each epileptic incident and her school's subsequent failure to support her medical and academic needs. Without the social support of Jazz Choir, her stress grew out of control. As her stress increased, so did her seizures. By the end of high school, Sophia had failed many classes, had a 1.25 GPA, and had suffered more than 34 seizures while at school. Still, the school refused to accommodate her needs.
Learning Rights, in partnership with the Law Office of Shawna L. Parks and Wyner Law Group, zealously advocated on Sophia’s behalf. A U.S. District Court Judge ruled that Downey High School failed to accommodate and appropriately respond to Sophia’s disability, despite being repeatedly provided with a care plan and instructions to properly care for seizure attacks. The District settled before the case went to trial for damages.
This case should serve as a lesson to school administrators because, as Sophia says, "Every school will have students like me. Every school should be prepared for students like me." The training that would have kept Sophia safe was simple. The accommodations that would have helped her in class were simple. But when schools fail to act proactively, the damage can be lasting and complex. Sophia's case has emboldened the legal requirement to do the former, instead of leaving students to suffer the latter.
As Sophia explains: “Nothing can bring back my high school years, and give me the same chances that other students had. But I hope that my case will raise awareness about epilepsy, and what schools need to do to respond. We all just want a fair shot at an education and we want to feel safe at school.”